Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Answering Aunt Bertha by J.A. Steiner

Answering Aunt Bertha...Regarding Her God and Faith, J.A. Steiner. self-published, 2010. ebook, 441 pps.

     J.A. Steiner had an elderly aunt named Bertha [she passed away before he finished the book] who was a sincere Christian woman. He wrote Answering Aunt Bertha in response to her beliefs without any intention of sharing his writing with her. Although my own relatives-- including the elderly ones-- know about my own atheism, I strive to respect my older relatives in particular by not arguing with them. I suspect that perhaps J.A. Steiner is of similar mind.

     The most valuable point that J.A. Steiner made in the e-book is one about control or self-control. From page 219: "Religion imposes rules that may enable you to overcome personal weaknesses and encourage self-control."  I have certainly witnessed evidence of this with people in the throes of active addiction who find peace and a new way of being via a set of ideas related to spiritual practices [including but not limited to the twelve steps as originally written for Alcoholics Anonymous and subsequently altered for other X.A. programs] as well as those who never come to meeting rooms but who seek through their churches or other religious bodies to quit doing what they've been doing. This is the primary reason why I do not seek to argue people out of their belief systems. [There are other reasons also which involve how belief operates as well as basic human respect for others].

     J.A. Steiner goes on to almost condemn this sort of thing by calling those who utilize this tool as weak or lacking willpower or intellectually lazy or suffering from not enough self-determination. That is what I find to be the greatest weakness in Answering Aunt Bertha. Religion has provided many people an impetus to change. While some of those changes may be lethal, other changes are not. To decide that all of the folks who know that they need social supports and find it in religion are somehow lacking is an error in cognitive thinking. Because not all of them are. I suspect that most of them are not lacking.

     While it is true that many horrid acts have been perpetrated in the name of religion, it is also true that religion also motivates people to compassionate and altruistic acts. It is unfortunate that Muslims tend to rely on the "no true Muslim" fallacy when noting that extremists perpetrate acts of terror and also unfortunate that Christians do not recognize folks in the Westboro Baptist Church as being part of what religion can also birth. Although we know today the Vatican's part in covering for the religious who were actively involved in the genocide in Rwanda, the Vatican is reluctant to admit to any wrong-doings on the part of Mother Church [in my opinion] in general until almost forced to.

     No true Scotman or Muslim or Christian or any other word designating a person belonging to a religious sect fails in terms of recognizing the part that religion has played in some of the worst disasters the world has seen. And yet, religion has also done much good. Nothing is all good or all bad. People too. Not one of us is all good or all bad. Even Hitler loved his dog.

sapphoq reviews says: I do applaud the efforts of J.A. Steiner to put forth his thoughts on atheism versus Christianity. Answering Aunt Bertha is not scholarly, thus it is accessible to the average reader. Even so, I hesitate to fully endorse this book. Christians may find it rambling. Atheists will be familiar with much of what it contains. Yet, we need more books for and by the common atheist. Recommended for atheists who are not wanting to be persuaded by the standard attempts to "debunk" Christianity.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God by Greta Christina

Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Greta Christina. San Francisco: Dirty Heathen Publishing, 2014. ebook, 60 pps.

     My father is dead. He died on Christmas Eve holding my hand. He had a long struggle with Lewy Body Dementia, succeeding in living with it for more than a decade. Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God arrived around December 14th or so without any fanfare that I was aware of. I bought it several days ago, after my week-long vigil keeping my dad company.

     I know my dad is dead. There are other things that I do not know but doubt-- stuff that my Christian friends all say they are quite sure of-- such as the absence of the ghosts of my dearly departed grandparents. Yeah, Dad had a few quiet conversations with them during the death watch. Or, his failing brain hallucinated them. I'm not sure that people of the Book should be believing in talking with dead loved ones. I remember something about a chasm that the departed faithful cannot cross over in order to warn the living about rejecting Jesus. And then that whole Judgement Day scene. Isn't that supposed to happen before the opening of the gates of heaven? 

     The other thing that my believing friends take stock in is prayer. "We're praying for you," was routinely offered as solace. I finally offered the names of other family members for them to pray over. I've had enough of that. I'd rather have Spanish rice casseroles or muffins or chocolates by way of comfort. Prayer doesn't seem to work for me. I think of myself as the anti-prayer. Oh, not because I am against it. Rather because at one time I was diligent in my praying and could find no evidence of any deities attending to my earnest petitions during that time or any other.

     But I am not unkind. I thank people for their prayers and I acknowledge their beliefs in talking dead people. After all, they are not telling me that I am a filthy atheist condemned to the salt pits or anything of that nature. Like many atheists, I prefer to deal with the here and now rather than any promised reunion in some unnamed future [pre-rapture or post-rapture, it matters not to me] date. Advising me that "He's in a better place," or "Someday you'll see him again," feels like a denial of the totality of the loss of my father even though people don't mean to discount my grief. And no, there is no wailing and gnashing of teeth for this atheist. Death is a part of life. My dad's organs failed. That's all.

sapphoq reviews says: I was delighted to read Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God. I like Greta Christina's writing style and I like that she included her wife Ingrid and late cat Lydia in the book. I like the straightforward acknowledgement that often what serves as comfort to believers doesn't feel the same to us non-theists. I like the idea that we get to create our own meaning. [I've been doing that for years now]. I like the book. It is a short book but worth the read nonetheless. Those who identify as people of faith will find much to argue with in this book. I hasten to gently point out that this book was not written for believers. Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God was written for the rest of us-- the atheists, agnostics, agnostic atheists, non-theists, free-thinkers, nones, brights. And so yes, I highly recommend Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God to those of us for whom traditional messages of comfort during grief do not work.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Playing Dead by Julia Heaberlin

Playing Dead: A Novel, Julia Heaberlin. New York: Random House Publishing Group, 2012. ebook, 293 pps.

     Playing Dead is for those travel buffs who enjoy a good fiction read with some mystery and intrigue thrown in. The setting for this one travels from Ponder Texas to ChiTown flawlessly. There is a mafia dude in it, a crazy dead mother, some other dead relatives, a stud, and some horses to boot. I was hooked from the first page.

     The narrator Tommie McCloud like me "learned early that nothing is what it seems." (page 9). The voice is both folksy and serious at the same time. I related to Tommie and her sister Sadie. I couldn't help but like them.

     The description of Ponder, Texas reminded me of several little sleepy Texan towns I spent some time in years ago [but I won't tell you what I was doing in them] complete with horses, a downtown, and pick-up trucks. And Chicago was very much the Chicago that I visited several years ago. 

     I've only seen wind farms in Maine but it was quite easy for me to transpose them into a Texan landscape. Bits of Texan history fleshed out Ponder for me, a place I could live in if I ever want to.

     Tommie's mother is certifiably crazy. Her dad and granddad are both dead. A brother was killed years ago. Some of her dad's friends are still in the background [and sometimes the foreground] watching over Tommie and defending her welfare. Being Texas, there were guns. I like guns.

sapphoq reviews says: Julia Heaberlin has written an intriguing book in Playing Dead. This is chick lit at its finest. Highly recommended.

The Stupidest Angel by Christopher Moore

The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror, Version 2.0, Christopher Moore. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009. eBook, 194 pps.

     I was on a week-long death vigil for my dad when I thumbed through my e-reader and decided to read a Christmas-y novel written by the great Christopher Moore. I was glad that this one-- featuring the angel Raziel-- was the one I settled on.

     Some characters featured in other Christopher Moore books are also in The Stupidest Angel. Raziel screwed up the last search for El Nino royally because the kid was found at age ten instead of at level zero or below [about to be birthed or not quite ready to be birthed]. A bunch of other folks in The Stupidest Angel also screw things up.

     The most endearing character in this one was Roberto, the talking fruit bat. He is awesome and clever, personable and non-ass-kissing. Definitely my kind of guy. The least endearing-- perhaps-- was the ex hubby Dale Pearson with whom a certain Sally Army bell-ringer has a run-in with. Let us just say that the one man police force is a bit incompetent, his wife is a bit nuts, the Lonesome Christmas party is something I wish there was in my community although perhaps without the dead spooks arguing about Christmas songs and who's getting it on with who on whose grave. Uh, yeah. You get the picture. Throw in some zombies and a cool earthy sort of little boy.

sapphoq reviews says: Hey, I love Christopher Moore stuff [but not Michael Moore stuff-- just saying] and this one ought to be on the reading list of any adult with a sense of humor. Highly recommended.

The Christian Delusion ed. by John W. Loftus

The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails, edited by John W. Loftus. Amherst NY: Prometheus Books, 2010. eBook, 453 pps.

     The Christian Delusion is a collection of essays spanning neuroscience, culture, astronomy, morality, historical research, history of the Holocaust, scientific philosophies, and more. Of the listed authors, I've read stuff by Dan Barker, Valerie Tarico, John W. Loftus, Edward T. Babinski, Paul Tobin, and Hector Avalos. I didn't recognize the other authors but it seems like they are well-established in their fields. The authors are all scholars and experts thus The Christian Delusion is not an easy read. Of all of the essays, the one that I got the most value out of was Chapter 15: Christianity Was Not Responsible for Modern Science by Richard Carrier. Richard Carrier made some excellent points in respect to the history of the persecution of scientists throughout the ages and how scientific progress was often held back by Christian leadership.

     Chapter 4: The Outsider Test for Faith Revisited by John W. Loftus peaked my interest enough to read the book by Loftus. A review of that book is in the offing. Some of the other ideas were familiar to me. I've heard before the expression "Yahweh is a moral monster." I also know that Adolph Hitler was a faithful Roman Catholic and that the "solution to the Jewish problem" that he established and carried out was previously expressed in the writing of none other than Martin Luther. Luther learned this prejudice at the knees of Mother Church which did not treat Jews kindly throughout the ages. [excerpts from his writing may be found at: ]. That belief in the tenets of any religion is not required to live a moral life seems to me to be a given. I understand morality and societal laws both as being generated from groups of humans bound together by their culture rather than from divine edict. I am also familiar with the problems involved in a literal interpretation of the Bible and some of the doctrines therein. Even so, The Christian Delusion got me thinking and that in itself is good.

sapphoq reviews says: Although the blurbs about The Christian Delusion indicate that this book may find its way into the hands of Christians who wish to study the arguments of atheists in order to understand us better, I cannot imagine that too many Christians will choose to read this book. The title itself is probably off-putting to the majority of people of faith. As an atheist, I liked this book although I found that parts of it required re-reading and further study. For atheists, highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Christmas Dog by Melody Carlson

The Christmas Dog, Melody Carlson.  Ada, Mich: Baker Publishing Group, 2009. eBook, 131 pps.

     Betty lives in a small town away from her children. Her husband has been dead. She is a faithful Christian and church attendee. Her newest neighbor, a young man by the name of Jack, is weird and she struggles to respond to him with love. Betty is troubled because the pastor has preached on loving thy neighbor and she is too afraid of Jack to do that. What if he is a serial killer or something? She is aware that sociopaths can possess a sort of slick, sick charm. But Jack is anything but charming. For one thing, he seems to be tearing apart the insides of his home and leaving the debris all over his lawn-- the house used to belong to Betty's two close friends but they are gone now. And to top it off, Jack has a rather bedraggled looking dog that has learned how to come into her yard via a hole in the fence. 

     The dog's name is Ralph (or Ralphie) and he keeps peeing on her dogwood tree. Betty is peeved that Jack would allow his mutt to run loose. Throughout the book, the mutt keeps running loose. Betty wants to report Jack to the local animal control authorities for neglecting the dog. 

     A [step-]granddaughter drops in just before Christmas. Avery is Betty's son's step-daughter. Although Avery is not her son's biological daughter, Avery and Betty have been close since they first met. Avery's mum is peeved that Avery is at Betty's house and not at her own house. She keeps telephoning and demanding that Avery come back in time for Christmas.

     And there is also a fiftieth wedding anniversary party of two friends. Betty is in charge of decorations. 

sapphoq reviews says: Melody Carlson is a prolific writer and her book The Christmas Dog reflects her talent. Being a book geared for Christian readership, there are bits of prayer and church-going in it as would be expected. 
     What I didn't expect what how several situations were resolved in the book. The Christmas Dog was not predictable and I like that. Highly recommended to Christian women (and safe for Christian teens).


Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks

Lost Memory of Skin, Russell Banks. London: HarperCollins, 2011. eBook, 408 pps.

     A young adult chronophiliac who goes by the name of Kid or The Kid in Lost Memory of Skin lives under a causeway with other convicted sexual offenders in this novel. He has a pet iguana who suffers from hyperactive cops, a job busing tables at a restaurant, and not much more. He encounters a professor who is doing a sociological study and agrees to talk with him. Stuff happens.

sapphoq reviews says: Clues to The Kid's specific sex crime are presented early in Lost Memory of Skin but they are easy to miss. I liked this book because it made me think. The sex offenders are just as integral to the novel as the swamp and the hurricane are. Highly recommended for those who enjoy unique coming-of-age stories.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Cult by Michelle Hand

Cult, Michelle Hand. self-published via Smashwords, 2013. 268 pps.

     The novel Cult starts off with an interesting premise. Katelyn lives in a village. She is meeting with the elders who are chiding her for being seen with a a specific boy in the woods. They don't care that there is a good reason for her apparent disobedience. As a female, she is expected to be subservient, more so than the males of the village.

     There is no privacy in the village. Everyone lives in tents. Everything is done in the open. Since Katelyn's father had died, her family did not have enough food to eat. Cult is a full novel and goes into depth of detail about the lives of people who live in the tents and are subjected to the whims of their elders.

 sapphoq reviews says: I found Cult to be a very interesting read. The description of the events kept me reading until the end. Some of the issues identified in the novel are very similar to the things that we citizens of the United States are dealing with in respect to our government, such as the frontal assault on our privacy by the N.S.A. and other three-letter agencies. The characters were individualized. I could understand their motives and their reactions to situations. For fans of dystopian literature, recommended.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

High Price by Carl Hart

High Price: A Neuroscientist's Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know about Drugs and Society. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2013. eBook, 299 pps. on Twitter (tm)

     Carl Hart is a black man whose life could have wound up very differently than it had. He was well-acquainted with guns, drugs, and crime as a young man. But things happened and instead of winding up incarcerated or worse, he became a noted neuro-scientist. Even so, his status and N.I.H. identification card did not save him from having to participate in a one person line-up. The cops suspected him of being a bank robber even though he had just come out of the bank with his statement in hand. They didn't care that he was a top neuro-scientist or anything. They only cared that he was black and the bank robber was black too. After twenty minutes, he was allowed to go.

     In High Price, Carl Hart recounts his story along with the research that he has done concerning the nature of addiction and of addicts. I learned from this book that Desoxyn (tm), Ritalin (tm) and Adderall (tm)  are prescribed for people with A.D.H.D.yet people who take Adderall for treatment of A.D.H.D. are actually at lower risk for addiction than those whose A.D.H.D. is left untreated. All three agents release dopamine which was at one time implicated in the development of addiction. The development of "meth-mouth," i.e. rotting teeth is actually not from the intake of street meth-- which is what the hyped up media and alarmist addictions workers would have us believe-- but rather from poor hygiene and lack of dental care. People do not develop meth-mouth from ingesting the drugs which are prescribed for their A.D.H.D.  These three drugs are the same ones available to addicts in the streets and are indicted as being responsible for rotting teeth. Hmmm.

     We were also taught that crack is different from cocaine. The only difference is the way in which the high is delivered. Thus, the old saw about crack being "instantly addictive" is crap. The research also does not bear out the idea that an active drug addict cannot prevent himself from using when he is offered the choice of a hit or some money for not taking the hit.

     Carl Hart gives ample evidence of why the drug laws are the way they are in the United States, citing racism as being responsible for us having laws that science does not support. His definition of racism is found on page 20: "Racism is the belief that social and cultural differences between groups are inherited and immutable, making some groups inalterably superior to others." He goes on in that paragraph to describe institutional racism that is present in education, the criminal justice system, and other places. That definition alone was worth the price of this book.

sapphoq reviews says: Carl Hart turned much of what I thought I knew about addiction on its head. He does not address treatment for addiction in High Price other than citing the research showing that addicts benefit more and longer from exposure to contingency motivation therapy (and the use of monetary rewards specifically) than from traditional counseling associated with funneling addicts into twelve step rooms. The percentage of addicts who stayed with the treatment until the end and the percentage of addicts who remained clean for a period of time or longer afterwards was significantly higher in the first group of research subjects than in the second group. There were many many other things that I thought I knew which turn out not to be supported by neuro-scientific research. High Price left me a bit pissed off at the media too, more than I already was. I am following up with reading a book that Carl Hart referenced dealing with the history of our draconian drug laws and how racism impacted their formation. High Price is absolutely highly recommended, especially to those who are not afraid of having what they've been told about addiction to be roundly challenged.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Sherwood Nation by Benjamin Parzybok

Sherwood Nation, Benjamin Parzybok.  Easthampton Mass.: Small Beer Press, 2014. eBook 444 pps.  Benjamin Parzybok on Twitter (tm)  on reddit (tm)

     Benjamin Parzybok has also written the book Couch which I read and reviewed some time ago.

     Portland, Oregon is hit with a drought. Corrupted politics separates the haves from the have nots. A young woman inadvertently sets up a micro-nation. She earns the nickname Maid Marian.

sapphoq reviews says: I am a fan of Benjamin Parzybok. I found Sherwood Nation to be an excellent depiction of what could be, especially in regards to the droughts that the western part of the United States experiences with regularity. The characters were vibrant and leapt off the pages, demanding to be heard. Yeah, highly recommended.

Dear Nobody by Mary Rose

Dear Nobody: The True Diary of Mary Rose, Mary Rose; edited by Gillian McCain and Legs McNeil. Naperville ILL.: Sourcebooks Fire, 2013.

     Mary Rose was a teen who had cystic fibrosis and died from complications. Dear Nobody is her diary. Unlike Go Ask Alice by Anonymous, Dear Nobody is a true diary with no particular premise [I found out after my teen years that Go Ask Alice was written partly with the idea that teens from divorced families are more likely to do drugs]. Mary Rose wrote about her experiences with partying and drug rehab, being terminally ill and knowing it, family relationships, boys, and friendship.

sapphoq reviews says: I found myself liking Mary Rose. Her drawings are quite good. Her writing is poignant. I am sorry she is gone. Her words still survive. 
     I found especially interesting her point of view as a teen in an adolescent program of a drug rehab. I worked in such a place for three miserable years of my life. [I prefer teens in groups of one]. I suspect that many people who work in the addictions field will sign and say, "Oh she was in denial." I think there was a bit more going on than denial. Sometimes what we refer to as denial is actually ambivalence. 
     I think we lost someone great when Mary Rose died. Highly recommended. [And probably okay for most teens to read].

Etched in Sand by Regina Calcaterra

Etched in Sand: A True Story of Five Siblings Who Survived an Unspeakable Childhood on Long Island, Regina Calcaterra. London: HarperCollins Publishers, 2013. ebook, 240 pps.

     Regina was one of five siblings who grew up in (most of the time) poverty and (pretty near all of the time) extreme abuse imposed by her mother and the foster care system. Her mother was indiscriminately abusive towards all of her children and some of her male lovers as well. Eventually, Regina and three of her sisters got out. One sister wasn't able to get out until legal age due to total and abject system failure. A brother-- the apparent favored child-- may not have wanted to get out.

sapphoq reviews says: Regina Calcaterra recounts an appalling and heart-wrenching story of what happened to her and her siblings at the hands of adults who were supposed to protect them. I thought that this book was genuine and brutally honest and ought to be required reading by all people who work in the foster care system and maybe some parents as well. Highly recommended.

Pieces of Me by Rebecca Brown

Pieces of Me, Rebecca Brown. self-published via, 2014. eBook, 32 pps.

     There is a Rebecca Brown who is one of Jack Chick's associates [who may help him write his Christian tracts], however I don't know if the Rebecca Brown who wrote Pieces of Me is the same Rebecca Brown who helped Jack Chick.

     Pieces of Me is a small sampling of poetry that Rebecca Brown has written through the years. The earlier poems are titled with red. There are bits of rhyme throughout and a few drawings and pictures interspersed throughout. The topics range from sentiments concerning a classmate who died too young to lost love and to the love between a mother and child.

sapphoq reviews says: I found the poetry in this currently free e-book to be honest and touching. I enjoyed the elegance of the pencil drawings and the photographs. I'd love to see more poetry written by Rebecca Brown. My only disappointment is that I wished for more visual art included with the words. For those who don't hate bits of rhyme, recommended.